I don’t know about you, but every time I hear the word herpes, I cringe. Though its health complications are very rarely life threatening, it is often the one that scares us most. Why? It infects our most precious parts… and it affects them forever. Yet, 16% of the U.S. population between the ages of 14 and 49 have genital herpes, so if you are suffering from the STD, you are not alone.
What the hell is it?
Genital Herpes is a highly contagious sexually transmitted disease caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV). There are two types – HSV-1, which effects your mouth, and HSV-2, which infects your genital and anal areas. Both are spread by direct contact with lesions, mucus surfaces, genital secretions, and even oral secretions. It’s most commonly spread through kissing and sexual contact. It is also possible to contract herpes by contact with skin that does not appear infected. Transmission happens most often when an infected partner does not know they are infected, and does not have any visible signs or sores.
Type 1 vs. Type 2
HSV-1 causes sores near, on, and in the mouth. These are commonly referred to as cold sores or blisters. Most often, HSV-1 is spread through oral secretions and sores. It can be transmitted through kissing or by sharing objects like a toothbrush. HSV-1 can also cause a genital infection, but most of those cases are linked to HSV-2. If someone has an HSV-1 outbreak and goes down on someone, that people may become infected with HSV-1.
HSV-2 is the primary virus behind genital herpes. A person infected with HSV-2 will experience sores near, on, or in the genitals and rectum, and sometimes in other areas almost exclusively below the waist – including inside the urethra. It can be transmitted through any kind of skin-on-skin contact, but mainly sexual contact. Even if you use a condom, the skin-on-skin contact of sex can be enough to spread herpes.
Most people who are infected with the virus have very mild to no symptoms the majority of the time. The average incubation period after exposure is about four days, after which symptoms may begin to appear. When symptoms do appear, a person will usually experience an outbreak, which are multiple sores on the affected area. These sores break and cause painful ulcers that can take up to a month to heal. The very first outbreak is usually the longest and when the virus is most easily spread. Other symptoms during this time can include fever, body aches, swollen lymph nodes, and headache. During the first year of the infection, recurrent outbreaks are more likely, though these recurrences usually don’t last as long and aren’t as severe. During an outbreak, women may experience additional pain when peeing, as urine running over the sores can aggravate them.
Living with Herpes…
There is no cure for herpes. Once you become infected, you will have the virus for life. However, doctors can prescribe antiviral medications that can prevent, shorten, and suppress outbreaks, and decrease the likelihood of transmission. There are also creams and medications to manage pain and prevent herpes from spreading. If you are living with the virus, you should be open and honest about your condition – and make sure to tell your partner before sexual contact.
There are no current preventable vaccinations for the virus, but you can protect yourself. The best way to protect yourself is to abstain from sexual contact. But, if you’re having sex – make sure to ask your sexual partners if they’ve been tested, look for an outbreak or symptoms on your partner, and always use protection. Although condoms don’t prevent herpes, they can cut your risk of transmitting or getting it in half. Telling your partner and abstaining from sexual contact, especially during an outbreak, it the best way to stay safe.